Art of the matter

Art of the matter

Lead review

Art of the matter

Gustave Flaubert — the subject of Julian Barnes’ magical novel-biography-meditation, Flaubert’s Parrot — argued that great paintings required no words of explanation. But as Barnes writes in Keeping an Eye Open, an illuminating new collection of essays on art, “we remain incorrigibly verbal creatures who love to explain things” — “put us in front of a picture and we chatter, each in our different way”.

Barnes, not surprisingly, chatters like the gifted novelist he is, using his eye for the telling detail, his narrative intuition and his understanding of the creative process to help us see familiar artists like Degas, Braque and Magritte afresh, and to appreciate the work of lesser-known masters as well — the beautifully harmonic interiors of Édouard Vuillard; the stylised, psychologically intense portraits of men and women in Félix Vallotton’s Nabi-period canvasses, and Howard Hodgkin’s “hot, often scorched” use of colour.

Barnes writes with an easy understanding of the tension between life and art and the strange alchemy of imagination; he also conveys an appreciation of artists’ technique, as it has been learned from predecessors and developed through experimentation and serendipity. He effortlessly situates a masterwork in the context of its creator’s career, and that career within the larger arc of art history — all, with a light but authoritative hand.

While he warns of the hazards of allowing biographical gossip to affect our interpretation of artworks, he’s also deft at unraveling the ways in which artists’ temperaments can inform vision and style. He contrasts the work of the arrogant, dominating Picasso to the calm, almost Zen-like paintings of Braque; and he suggests a connection between Lucian Freud’s careless, incorrigibly unfaithful life — running through scores of lovers and fathering at least 14 children — and what he describes as a “cold and ruthless” quality to his paintings of women.

The subjects here are chosen somewhat arbitrarily, the result, mostly, of journalistic assignments. But taken together, they tell the story of how artists (mainly, French) moved from romanticism to realism to modernism. He traces the shifting values we place on the sort of transformations — subtle, grand, surreal, satirical — these painters worked on reality while examining the mysterious dynamic between individual artists’ gifts and an emerging cultural zeitgeist.

Barnes succinctly evokes the contradictions embodied by Delacroix: a member of that generation of French romantics who were inspired by Shakespeare and Byron, but who also esteemed Voltaire and Mozart — a “self-defended man who feared passion and valued above all tranquillity,” but whose art spoke of “extravagance, passion, violence, excess.”

He describes the self-promoting Courbet — “a great painter, but also a serious publicity act” — as “an in-your-face Realist,” whose family motto might well have been “Shout loud and walk straight.” And he asserts that much as Manet made Courbet seem part of the tradition, so would Cézanne make Manet feel like a part of the fast receding past.

The speed with which these changes occurred is breathtaking in retrospect: how quickly the cubists and many who followed “took over, absorbed and cannibalised Cézanne.” “He is where modern art — even Modern Art — begins,” Barnes writes. Yet today, on the walls of the great museums, he fits smoothly into what has become part of the historical continuum.

These may not exactly be new or revelatory insights, but one appeal of Keeping an Eye Open is that Barnes does not write as a scholar, but as an avid and thoughtful amateur — adept at conveying a tactile sense of a painting and its emotional penumbra, and its philosophical subtext, too. Of Courbet’s “L’Atelier,” Barnes notes that its depiction of the painter working on a landscape (in a studio, not en plein-air) implies that Courbet is “doing more than merely reproducing the known, established world — he is creating it anew himself.”

In another chapter, he wryly observes that portraits created by Cézanne, who once exhorted a model to be still “like an apple,” were really still lifes, “governed by colour and harmony,” not depictions of “human beings who do normal human things like talk, laugh and move.” As for Magritte, Barnes points out that he tweaked the surrealist method of opposing completely unrelated objects by juxtaposing related ones.

Barnes can be blunt, even snarky in articulating his tastes in art; he writes that Warhol “is an artist rather as Fergie is a Royal.” But, at heart, his essays are animated by his keen, appraising eye, and a wellspring of common sense. He dismisses critics who have discerned a misogyny in Degas’ work — based, it seems, on rumours of his own absent love life — when, as Barnes points out, his radiant studies of dancers and bathers make it clear that he “plainly loved women” in his art.

He also turns out to be shrewd in reminding us how Picasso — whose life seemed vulgar and egotistic in comparison to, say, Cézanne’s — now appears high-minded in contrast to “the most ‘successful’ artists of the 21st century, flogging their endless versions of the same idea to know-nothing billionaires.”

Though this volume contains lots of illustrations, one wishes there were even more of the paintings Barnes discusses. He writes about them so vividly, comments so astutely on small details of light and space and colour, that we find ourselves reading the book with an iPad or laptop on hand, Googling images of the works he has so eloquently and ardently described.

‘Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art’
Julian Barnes
Jonathan Cape
2015, pp 288, Rs 594